12 Years a Slave
12 Years a Slavelooks set to win the ultimate accolade of Best Picture Oscar, having beaten Gravityat the Golden Globes. While Chiwetel Ejiofor lost out on Best Actor, McQueen to Cuaròn and newcomer Lupito Ngong’o to Hollywood darling Jennifer Lawrence, it nevertheless looks set to make history – and who knows, McQueen may yet become the first Black director to win that coveted prize of Best Director. Not forgetting he’s British…and would be the first man ever to win both the Turner Prize and an Oscar!
The film is based on Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir of the same title. An historical survey shows that it was one of many such publications in the run-up to emancipation, which culminated in the controversial yet hugely influential Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which did more for the cause than the much disputed runaway slave biographies. 12 Years A Slavewas nevertheless unique in its attention to the harrowing detail of plantation life and went so far as to name names. McQueen has ample source material to build upon his favoured themes of torture, violence, starvation and sexual addiction as evidenced in his two powerful films, Hungerand Shame, while shying away from the stylised (Django Unchained) and the clichéd (Gone with the Wind).
Solomon Northup was a rarity: a freed slave in New York, a carpenter and musician, with white friends. In truth he was a little feckless, a fact only hinted at in the film by his capricious departure in 1841 with a couple of circus men to make some money in Washington. They con him and sell him into captivity. The film chronicles his 12 hard years of losing his identity – he becomes ‘Platt’ -hiding his literacy and education (literate slaves frequently had their hands amputated) and stifling his rage, while looking for opportunities for rescue. This comes in the form of a Canadian emancipationist played by Brad Pitt. I don’t deem this a spoiler, as how else would he have survived to tell the tale?
McQueen reflects Northup’s objectivity: he has every reason to evince nothing but anger; instead he shows remarkable control and insight in his analysis that the institution of slavery ‘brutalised’ master and slave alike. It encouraged psychopathic owners like the heinous Edwin Epps (monstrously played by McQueen’s favoured actor Michael Fassbinder) and condoned the habit of ownership by ‘good’ people, like Northup’s first owner, William Ford. British favourite Benedict Cumberbatch pops up here, but never quite masters a southern accent. As the film shows, even fair owners ,like Ford, have sadistic overseers such as Tibeats (Paul Dano), who can inflict the most terrible punishments on whim. The most gruesome scene in the film is where Northup is strung-up, Strange Fruit-style. Such lynchings were commonplace, as was rape.
Patsey (Ngong’o) is no cinema construct: Northup recounts Epps’s sexual obsession with her, which McQueen transposes to celluloid and simultaneously exposes the great contradictions of the master/slave relationship. Epps talks openly about slaves being ‘baboons’ yet can’t keep his hands off the beautiful Patsey, whether raping her or flaying her, in yet another of the scenes reflecting the brutal reality of plantation life.
Sean Bobbitt’s eerie camera work unflinchingly captures the antebellum Louisiana landscape and casual cruelty of life on the plantations. The music contributes authenticity, whether it be Tibeats’s cruel rendition of Run, Nigger Run, the powerful Roll Jordan, Rollwhich seems to coincide with Northup’s acceptance of his lot, or his fiddle playing while the exhausted slaves dance at their master’s pleasure.But the accolades must surely go to Ejiofor, whose face fills the screen for much of the time, and whose curling lip, blink of an eye and sideways move of the head convey more meaning than a single word. Interestingly, he was hesitant about the role initially, but now he is advocating that every child should read Northup’s 12 Years a Slavein order to understand the unvarnished truth about slavery. They should see this film too; despite its bleakness, it has a 15 certificate and is much less violent than all those wretched computer games so beloved of our youth.